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Tournaments | Story | 7/6/2018

14u BCS semis await EC Astros

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Dylan Lesko (Perfect Game)

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Before East Cobb Astros 14u head coach Ben Blumenthal sent his team out on the field to play Elite Squad 14u National in the quarterfinal-round of the playoffs at the Perfect Game 14u BCS National Championship Friday morning, he thought back to the last time the two teams had faced one another.

It was just over a year ago at the 13u PG World Series, a first-round playoff game at the prestigious PG national championship event. It was a week or so before the Fourth of July but the fireworks went off early and often in the Elite Squad’s 8-7 win, with four hitters – two from each side – slugging home runs out of the park at PG Park-LakePoint up in Georgia.

“We played them last year in the (13u) PG World Series and it was an 8-7 ballgame with 13-year-olds hitting balls over the fence like crazy,” Blumenthal recalled Friday morning from the jetBlue Player Development Complex. “I was talking to their coach (Emerson Bello) before the game and we were expecting to have another great game for everyone to watch.”

No one dropped any bombs in this one, and in fact the Astros 14u’s 3-1 victory will instead be remembered for some small-ball and a couple of pretty salty pitching performances. And it will also be remembered because the result helped set the four-team 14u BCS semifinal field, with those games to be played Saturday morning at the Terry Park complex.

Three of the top-five playoff seeds are in the final-four and considered as a whole, it’s a formidable final foursome. The No. 5-seeded Georgia-based East Cobb Astros 14u (8-0-0) will face a familiar foe in No. 1 Georgia-based Team Elite 14u (7-0-0), and the No. 11 Virginia-based NBA Nationals (5-2-1) will go up against No. 2 Florida-based 5 Star-14u King (7-0-0).

The Astros 14u went 6-0-0 in the two sets of pool-play games but its total run differential (64-21) was only good enough for the No. 5 seed; that meant they had to play a first-round playoff game Friday morning (the top-four seeds received byes into the quarterfinals).

East Cobb was challenged in the first-rounder, needing a run in the bottom of the seventh to break a 2-2 tie and get past the Midwest Legends, 3-2. The Ohio-based Legends (3-3-1) had jumped on the Astros 14u with two runs in the top of the first.

“We’ve joked all year that we’re just going to save that first inning and put two runs on the board for the other team because we’ve literally done it in 90 percent of our games,” Blumenthal said. “For whatever reason we start off slow and then we get woken-up and go play ball. It’s a lot easier when they don’t do that, but we’re pretty used to it. We’ve played from behind most of the time this year.”

They turned the tables in their 3-1 win over the No. 4 Florida-based Elite Squad 14u Nationals (6-1-0) in the quarters, scoring all three of their runs in the top of the first inning.

Lleyton Lackey walked to lead-off the game and promptly stole both second and third base. Benjamin Hamacher also walked and stole second, and then Lackey scored and Hamacher moved over to third on a wild pitch. William Mosley and Thaddeus Ector came through with back-to-back, two-out RBI singles and the Astros 14u had a 3-0 lead that proved to be enough; Lackey tripled later in the game.

“The key is limiting mistakes early in the game,” Blumenthal said. “If the other team a chance to score four or five runs and we give up one or two to keep us in it and keep the mentality up, and then we can settle in, run the bases hard, take extra bases and put pressure on the other team.”

Perhaps the biggest key, however, was having the 2022 right-hander Dylan Lesko on the mound. Lesko allowed just one unearned run through 5 1/3 hitless innings, striking out seven and walking three. Elite Squad 14u National 2021 righty Luis Delgado was also pretty good, allowing two earned runs on three hits over six innings of work, striking out eight and walking four.

There are a couple of pockets of kids on this Astros 14u roster that have played together for several years now, including one group that has played for Blumenthal since they were 9 years old; another group has played together since they were 8 years old.

“That helps,” Blumenthal  said, “because they’ve either played with each other or against each other for a long time.”

Ector, Lackey, Lesko, Mosley and Jared Jones – he had one of those home runs for the Astros at last year’s 13u PGWS – are enjoying all-tournament team-caliber performances heading into the semis. Jones is 8-for-17 (.471) with three doubles, a triple and six RBI; Ector is 6-for-14 (.429) with two doubles, six RBI and six stolen bases and both Lackey and Lesko are 7-for-17 (.412). Lackey has a double, a triple, nine RBI and six stolen bases, Lesko a double, five RBI and five stolen bases.

The Elite Squad 14u Nationals (6-1-0) didn’t have to play a first-round playoff game, earning the No. 4 seed by outscoring their six pool-play opponents by a combined 40-14.

“Honestly, in (two) of the last games, (two) starting pitchers … came out and took care of business, and that’s what really helped us,” Squad 14u National head coach Emerson Bello said Friday. “These guys have always been that type of team; they always battle to the end no matter what the situation, they’ll always battle to the last out of the game.”

The core of this team has been together for five years now, according to Bello, and he’s taken a real shine to the group.

“They are the type of kids where they’re just humble kids,” Bello said. “They’ll take care of business on the field and do what they’re supposed to do. They’re not playing around; when it’s time to say, ‘play ball,’ they’re ready to go out there and play.”

The Squad 14u National, which didn’t play at last month’s PG 14u WWBA National Championship in the Atlanta area, was missing a few of its key players this week, but the guys that were here certainly got the job done right up until the bottom of the seventh in the game against the Astros.

The Nationals didn’t hit that well for average during the tournament but did manage to average almost six runs in each of their seven games; Rene Lastres and Daniel Swirsky drove in six runs apiece.

This is probably the appropriate place in this narrative to mention that the Elite Squad and the East Cobb Astros finished first and second, respectively, in PG’s final 2017 13u National Travel Team Rankings.

The Squad won the 13u PG World Series after beating the Astros in that first-round playoff game mentioned at the top of this story, won the PG 13u Fall World Series and finished third at the PG 13u East Memorial Day Classic. The Astros won the PG 13u Super25 National Championship along with the 13u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational in 2017.

Despite the loss in the quarterfinals on Friday, Bello was glad his young players had the opportunity to experience the 14u BCS National Championship and the level of competition it offered.

“This is an elite event,” he said. “The cream-of-the-cream is here and we try to set a high standard here and at the (PG) World Series, as well. … You see really, really a lot of talent out here and that’s going to help these kids in the future.”

The Astros, meanwhile, play on. This roster includes a lot of the same players that traveled to Southwest Florida a year ago and left with a PG Super25 national championship trophy. When they traveled here again this week the expectation that followed them was one of, “Hey, let’s win again.” If a team comes into a PG national championship event with a goal of only making the playoffs, its selling itself short.

“We expect to win every time we go out,” Blumenthal concluded. “We’ve got good athletes – they’re big, they’re strong – and as long as their mental game is there we can beat anybody. … Really, at this point, whoever plays the cleanest game and can be the strongest game mentally, they’re going to win it.”

There are three other teams that will arrive at Terry Park in the morning thinking the exact same thing.

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